Solar Is One Of The Year's Best Science Fiction Novels

If Ian McEwan's Solar isn't on the Hugo ballot next year, it'll be a miscarriage of justice. The two-time Booker Prize winner does something few literary darlings have done before: treat science with respect, as central to the story. Spoilers...

I'm not a huge Ian McEwan fan in general — I read a few of his novels several years ago, and wound up with the feeling that I'd read the same novel a few times in a row. It's also true that he's often better at the vignette than the all-encompassing novel. So I was pleasantly surprised by quite how much I loved Solar, and quite how much a revelation it felt like. This is the literary novel of science that I've been wanting to read for ages.

To be fair, Solar isn't your traditional science fiction novel. There is a huge scientific breakthrough at the center of the book — and if you take away that breakthrough, the book falls apart completely. But at the same time, the book's plot is much more personal, and the central scientific discovery interweaves with the personal storylines in various ways. But it's not the story of how that scientific discovery changes the world, or the dilemmas it brings up, per se. The science is central and speculative, and it's on almost every page, but it's part of the world the main character inhabits.

But nor is Solar your standard "literary author experiments with science fiction" novel either. Oftentimes, when lit authors venture into the world of SF, they treat it as a new collection of literary tropes, to be played with in some vaguely postmodern fashion. Think of Toby Litt's Journey Into Space, or Jeanette Winterson's Stone Gods. Science fiction provides a set of archetypes, like android lovers or people fleeing the ruins of Earth in a spaceship. Lit authors — just like many SF authors, for that matter — revisit the same story devices as past authors, with the intention of bringing something new to them. But McEwan, refreshingly, isn't interested in the conventions of SF.

Rather, McEwan manages to create something new and fascinating: an interweaving of speculative science with the intensely personal, through the comic central figure of Michael Beard, physicist and scoundrel.

Beard is one of those completely irredeemable protagonists whom British authors do so well — he has almost no good qualities, and yet he's completely magnetic and fascinating, and frequently hilarious. He's self-centered, alcoholic, cheating, lying and completely without ethics, and yet you find yourself rooting for him nonetheless. He has moments of total bizarre humiliation, reminiscent of Tom Sharpe's Wilt — like the amazing sequence where he visits Antarctica to "see global warming for himself" and stops in the middle of the tundra to take a pee, only to get a frozen penis. For about ten pages, he thinks his penis has fallen off inside his snowsuit, and McEwan manages to sell this ridiculous idea. (Relax, readers — the penis is unscathed.)

So Beard is a former Nobel Prize winner in physics, who came up with one great idea in his youth — the Beard-Einstein Conflation, a theory having to do with the way matter intersects with light. The idea was clever enough that Richard Feynman hailed it as "magic," and it's now taught in physics classes everywhere. Like so many great thinkers, Beard has spent the rest of his life resting on his laurels, with lots of sinecure appointments, lectureships and fancy dinners. He's also gone through half a dozen or so wives, cheating on all of them while feeling completely self-satisfied. By the time we meet Beard, he's become so idle and useless, he no longer even understands what's going on at the cutting edge of quantum physics, and he thinks the Bagger-Lambert-Gustavson (BLG) construction is a sandwich. He's surrounded by younger, keener scientists whom he can't tell apart (they're all just "the ponytails") and he literally can't understand what they're talking about half the time.

Until one of those ponytails comes up with a new idea for how the Beard-Einstein Conflation can save the world — and it actually might work. In a nutshell, Tom Aldous thinks that scientists can use Beard's theory to explain the longstanding mystery of photosynthesis, just how plants create electricity from sunlight. As he explains:

No one really understands how photons are converted to chemical energy so efficiently. Classical physics can't explain it. This talk of electron transfer is nonsense, it doesn't add up. How your average leaf transfers energy from one molecular system to another is nothing short of a miracle. But this is the point — the Conflation opens it right up. Quantum coherence is the key to the efficiency, you see, with the system sampling all the energy pathways all at once. And the way nanotechnology is heading, we could copy this with the right materials, and then crack water cheaply and store hydrogen on a domestic or industrial scale. Beautiful!

Aldous' theory, which turns out to be correct and which could wind up generating tons of cheap, clean solar power, becomes the focal point of the novel, and all of Beard's wrong choices revolve around it. He treats Aldous badly, as well as another one of his wife's lovers, and he screws over his wife as well as the mother of his child. And McEwan manages to set up the novel so that all of Beard's mistakes keep coming back to Aldous' scheme, which Beard eventually sees the merits of and sets in motion.

Beard essentially follows two paths in the novel. He becomes excited about science again, as he starts to glimpse the potential of Aldous ideas. ("Second time around, he understood more, and began to be interested, even a little excited.") And he has a new purpose, as a result. And then his other path is his slow decline, both due to aging and severe health problems and to the consequences of fucking over everybody he's ever met — and the genius of Solar is that both problems keep circling back to Tom Aldous and his formula.

If Solar is a satire, rather than a straight-up farce, it's at least partly satirizing the hierarchy of science, in which someone as far past his prime as Beard can take credit for Aldous' ideas. (There's a hilarious bit late in the novel, where Beard actually gives a speech defending this hierarchy on the grounds that a postdoc can never actually know anything.) It also throws an ugly light on the ways in which ego and personal foibles can destroy scientific progress.

Solar certainly has some flaws — including a too-pat ending, and a random bit where Beard gets in trouble for saying women have less natural aptitude for science, only to realize he's full of crap later — but luckily the whole thing keeps moving fast enough, and is funny enough, that the lapses are easily ignored.

Solar also includes some beautifully funny snark that feels like it could have been written by a real physicist, including the bit early on where Beard goes to work at a bogus environmental center (with the ponytails) and the government decides to solicit ideas from citizen "inventors" for how to generate clean energy. These ideas are uniformly batty, and one of the ponytails suggests sorting them into piles depending on whether they violate the first law of thermodynamics, the second, or both. And many of these would-be geniuses seem to believe the mystery of quantum field theory somehow contains the key to zero-point energy, leading to this great passage:

Quantum mechanics. What a repository, a dump, of human aspiration it was, the borderland where mathematical rigor defeated common sense, and reason and fantasy irrationally merged. Here the mystically inclined could find whatever they required and claim science as their proof. And for these ingenious men in their spare time, what ghostly and beautiful music it must be — spectral assymetry, resonances, entanglement, quantum harmonic oscillators — beguiling ancient airs, the harmony of the spheres that might transmute a lead wall into gold and bring into being the engine that ran on virtually nothing, on virtual particles, that emitted no harm and would power the human enterprise as well as save it.

There's also a great bit, later on, when Beard has to listen to some Liberal Arts people talking about quantum mechanics, and one of them tries to claim that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has something to do with moral ambiguity. Beard tries to dismantle this ridiculous argument, but the more he explains how the Uncertainty Principle actually works, the more smug the Liberal Arts people get.

Anyway, Solar more than meets the criterion for a decent science fiction novel: It's all about speculative science, and the thrill of discovery, and if you took the science away, it would collapse utterly. The fact that it's also a great novel, with one of the most memorably flawed protagonists I've seen in ages, is just a bonus.